Today we travel to the west coast of Scotland to chat with Mike Kernan about how being a journalist, listening, reading, early retirement, winters in Tenerife, being a sucker for a story, being a grandad, Back to the Future, fishing, heart surgery, and Friday the 13th come together as part of Mike’s current and past life.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I live with my wife Margaret in a small seaside town on the beautiful west coast of Scotland and think of myself as a grandad and writer – in that order. I was a journalist in newspapers and TV for more than 40 years, the last 20 as a national paper executive. I’ve been working on a couple of novels since taking early retirement four years ago but Covid focused my mind.
Without wishing to be over-dramatic, I decided it was now or never as I have underlying health issues and wasn’t sure if I would survive the pandemic. Finishing a book became my lockdown project and I published my first novel, The Fenian, in August 2020. The book has today received its 100th five-star rating and I am now working on the sequel. I also released a non-fiction book on angling, Fishing In The Sun, in November 2020.
In which genre do you write?
What a great start – a question I can’t answer! I’ve been asked this a few times about The Fenian, my first and only published novel so far, and I’m afraid I can’t pin it down. It’s definitely a coming-of-age story and the easy way out would be to leave it at that. But it’s also a drama, a romance, probably a saga, definitely a comedy and a tragedy. Overall, it’s just loads of hopefully interesting and entertaining people stuff – the good, bad and crazy things folk do to each other. Can that be a new genre – people stuff?
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
Before the writing came the reading and before the reading came the listening. To borrow from the opening line of Goodfellas, as far back as I can remember I was always a sucker for stories. The earliest one I can remember was my grandfather telling me about catching an enormous pike in Ireland that trailed on the ground and tried to bite his face as he dragged it home. That, and tales like it, stuck in my head for, well, forever because I still recall it now.
I was able to read at four so my mum took me to the library and told me later it was as if I’d walked into my own Aladdin’s Cave. Apparently, I took home two books that morning and wanted to go back in the afternoon because I had finished them. The moment I knew I wanted to be a writer was when, aged seven, we were told to create a true story about our pets and my teacher read mine out to the class. It was a dizzying high which lasted until parents’ night when she discovered I’d made it up.
I’ve had book ideas in my head and in various drafts for decades but, cliched excuse, life and a busy career as a journalist kept getting in the way. I took early retirement four years ago and since then have been trying to make up for lost time.
What is an interesting writing quirk you have, that we wouldn’t know by reading your biography?
I’m not sure how unusual it is, but I always start by writing the first chapter and the last chapter, then join the dots in a random way as the ideas flow. I need to know the root of the story and where it ends up so that I have compass points to guide me.
I wish I was more disciplined because this haphazard approach means that at some point, I have to shut myself away for a day (a few days more like) and make a giant chart of everything I’ve written and drag it kicking and screaming into some kind of order. I think my method – or lack of method – stems from a fear that if I don’t act on ideas for scenes or chapters immediately, I will lose the spark.
What does your ideal writing space look like?
This question saddens me because I haven’t been to my writing sweet spot for nearly two years and don’t know when I’ll make it back because of the curse of Covid. I like to escape the worst of the Scottish winter and flee to Tenerife, which has become like a second home. My wife Margaret and I have a routine of lazing on the hotel terrace after breakfast which, for me, translates into two hours of writing time. We go off and do the usual holiday stuff before returning to the hotel late afternoon. My wife reads and snoozes while I take the laptop and a glass of wine (OK, a bottle of wine) on to the balcony and either write or edit for another couple of hours in that brilliant Canarian light and warmth. We are tempted to return at New Year but we’re still wary about travelling due to other health issues.
What are you currently reading?
I have to admit to a bit of a nationalist streak when it comes to book choice. I’m always on the lookout for new novels by Scottish authors and this has dominated my reading in 2021. Highlights of the year have been Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan, The Less Dead by Denise Mina and The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong. I’m coming towards the climax of 1979 by Val McDermid. Like many people, I’m sceptical about books set in my own field but the 1970s newspaper world of the novel gets high marks for authenticity. And to put it simply with a good Scottish word, that lassie knows how to write a good yarn.
Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?
The Fenian started life as a short story which I planned to enter into a competition. It was inspired by a real-life experience about a couple split up by religious divide who then come back into each other’s lives many years later. A writer who looked at it told me I needed to flesh out the supporting characters a little, so I started adding memories of people and incidents from my own youth. It occurred to me that these back stories were just as interesting as the central plot and I realised I had a bigger-scale work on my hands.
What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting tired of?
I’d love to get all intellectual here and cite a seminal black and white art movie made by a cult Peruvian director which uses washing dishes as a metaphor for life. But I have to admit it’s Back To The Future all the way for me. It’s not the best film ever made but it’s probably the most perfect in terms of story, performance and entertainment. It also means a lot personally because it was the first film I took my daughters, Lynn and Laura, to see in the cinema. I’ve probably read and watched more about the background to the film than is healthy and the three of us can still voice it all the way through. Definitely my specialist subject if I ever go on Mastermind.
What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?
Just when my wife and I had given up hope, my daughter Lynn finally got round to producing a grandson and he is now my No1 interest. I have pretty much stolen him and two-year-old Jimmy and I are now partners in crime. For the two days a week he stays with us, I’m off the grid – no writing, minimal social media, kids TV only and no checking headlines, which is tough on a news junkie. Other than that, I do a bit of fishing and write a column about it, as well as the odd university lecture though I’m trying to scale back on that.
What’s a great piece of advice you’ve received lately?
A fellow author told me that even if the ideas aren’t coming as much as you’d like, it’s important to always write something. The thinking is that you cannot change, edit, improve or polish a blank page. It is so simple but true and has been extremely useful to me.
Have you ever had any Do It Yourself disasters?
My only possible DIY disaster is that I’m forced to do any. I am completely useless around the house though my wife insists I’m that way on purpose. I’m really not. I have reached my sixties unable to put a screw in straight or wash windows without leaving them worse than when I started.
My argument is that people earn a living by doing these things and I would be stealing from them if I dedicated myself to learning their skills. Besides, I didn’t expect readers to write their own headlines when I worked in newspapers. (No, my wife doesn’t buy the argument either.)
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing?
I’m afraid to tempt fate by answering this question but OK, here goes. There is something magical that happens when I sit down to write – and I have heard other authors talk about this. I will have the seed of an idea for a scene or chapter and every single time, I worry it won’t go anywhere or that I don’t have enough material. Once I start, the ideas flow and it sometimes feels like it’s nothing to do with me – I’m just the conduit, which never ceases to surprise and amaze me.
What is the most enjoyable thing you’ve found through writing?
The biggest single bonus to publishing The Fenian has been the response from readers. I acknowledge I am fortunate in that I don’t have to earn a living from writing so the only reason for doing it is to have my stories read. But I had no idea how rewarding it would be to receive messages from people who had done just that then taken the time to tell me how the book touched them and triggered memories. This is especially true when the messages are from people who grew up in the era and the place where the story is set.
As if that wasn’t enough, a number of old friends and schoolmates from the time have got back in touch after picking up the book. They remember many of the incidents and characters which inspired episodes in the story. Just last month I met up with three old friends, two of whom I’d had no contact with for nearly half a century.
What is the most craziest thing that has ever happened to you?
By far the craziest and most life-changing moment came when I was awaiting surgery in 2015. My heart had packed in which was not surprising given my lifestyle of high-pressure job, lack of exercise, poor diet and heavy smoking. I was put on the waiting list for a triple heart bypass and had the worst conversation of my life when the cardiologist told me I probably wouldn’t make it to the first date I was given. She promised to push for an earlier op. A few days later, she told me that a superstitious patient had refused to have surgery on Friday the 13th and asked if I wanted the slot? Naturally I said yes and believe I was given a second chance which I have grabbed with both hands.
How do you prepare yourself to discuss your book?
I am not a natural when it comes to preparation. I didn’t get the results I should have at school because I never studied and instead relied on memory. It’s the same when I’m about to talk about my book. I think of it as being like my children – I know it intimately and should be able to answer any questions thrown at me. I’ve probably just jinxed myself and will forget a character’s name next time out.
What do you miss about being a kid?
Honestly? Without overthinking it, playing football in the street.
Share an interesting or funny story from your childhood.
When I was eight, we had a day off school – no idea why – and I was running home from the park at the top of our street when I was blocked by a crowd of people who were waving and cheering. I squeezed through, ducked under a rope and asked a woman standing in front of me for the right time. Someone grabbed me and took my name and address. That evening a reporter from a national newspaper came to our house and told my parents I’d walked up to the Queen, who was on a royal visit, and chatted to her. The story and my picture appeared on the front page next morning. I used an exaggerated version of this incident in The Fenian.
What are you currently working on?
I am three-quarters way through the sequel to The Fenian. It was written as a standalone and I wrapped up the lives of the characters in an epilogue which limited the possibility of a follow-up. I also have four completely separate novels on the go, ranging from final edit to partly plotted, so a sequel was definitely never on the agenda. However, the response from readers has taken me by surprise – as have the ongoing sales figures – so that made me wonder whether there might be another book there. I was concerned about trying to force it but once I gave it some thought, the ideas came pouring out. On one of my daily walks along the coast where I live, I came up with the beginning, the end and a rough outline. It is provisionally titled Stopping To Rain after a grammatical anomaly one of the main characters utters as a young child.
Tell us about your most recent book.
The Fenian tells of the crazy, funny, tragic and outrageous adventures of two lovestruck teenagers and their pals growing up in a Scottish new town in the 1970s. The couple are split up by a deathbed promise but unexpectedly come back into each other’s lives at the turn of the millennium. As they assess the effects of that promise, they face up to the biggest question of their lives: What if you got a second chance to put right your biggest regret?
It was wonderful learning more about you and having you be a part of MTA, Mike. I’ve added The Fenian to my “to be read” list. Wishing you all the best and much success with future books. – Camilla
Where to find the book:
Available from Amazon on paperback, ebook and Kindle Unlimited, and as an audiobook from Audible.
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